Almanac

News - February 17, 2010

Menlo Park council formally opposes Cargill proposal

by Sean Howell

Menlo Park's City Council took an unambiguous, unilateral stand Feb. 9 against a proposal by agribusiness giant Cargill to develop hundreds of acres of Redwood City salt ponds.

Council members in a 4-1 vote denounced the proposal to build a mini-city that would include 8,000 to 12,000 new residential units on the edge of the Bay just north of Menlo Park, saying that it cuts against a half-century of regional planning philosophy. The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission designates the land as salt ponds; the council called for "full restoration" of the land.

Councilman John Boyle, who cast the dissenting vote, said he also has major reservations about the proposal.

But he dismissed the resolution as a "public position" that carried no legal weight, and could have damaging consequences. Passing it would weaken Menlo Park's ability to negotiate with Redwood City over revisions to the proposal, he argued.

"There will be lots of opportunities to shape this project still," he said. "We ought to be very clear about our reservations and our demands, but we should engage, rather than confront."

Council majority members disagreed, saying the resolution will not preclude the city from collaborating with Redwood City, and maintaining that they did not intend to slight the neighboring city. They said they wanted to make a clear statement about their views on developing the Bay, rather than let Cargill set the parameters of that debate.

The vote echoed council members' stance on the California high-speed rail project. A majority of council members supported the city joining a lawsuit against the agency overseeing that project, while also pursuing collaboration — a stance Mr. Boyle argued was incongruous.

Making a parallel between the two issues, Mayor Rich Cline in an interview said: "I don't want to have a discussion on the subtleties of what kinds of shovels they'll use to build it. If this is the proposal, we have to reject it. Resoundingly, we have to reject it."

Rhetoric grew lofty in a number of impassioned speeches during the period for public comment, with several residents, environmental advocates, and politicians imploring the council to take a stand, and disparaging Cargill's proposal. With the debate centering on issues of leadership and environmental justice, council members weren't inclined to take up Mr. Boyle's call to examine the text of the resolution.

"When there's an opportunity to show leadership, it's incumbent upon us to do so," said Councilman Andy Cohen. "It is not an option to shrink from the task, and to wait for a later opportunity, which may never arrive."

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